Physics » Electromagnetic Waves » The Electromagnetic Spectrum

Introducing the Electromagnetic Spectrum

Introducing the Electromagnetic Spectrum

In this module we examine how electromagnetic waves are classified into categories such as radio, infrared, ultraviolet, and so on, so that we can understand some of their similarities as well as some of their differences. We will also find that there are many connections with previously discussed topics, such as wavelength and resonance. A brief overview of the production and utilization of electromagnetic waves is found in this table.

Electromagnetic Waves

Connections: Waves

There are many types of waves, such as water waves and even earthquakes. Among the many shared attributes of waves are propagation speed, frequency, and wavelength. These are always related by the expression \({v}_{\text{W}}=\mathrm{f\lambda }\). This module concentrates on EM waves, but other modules contain examples of all of these characteristics for sound waves and submicroscopic particles.

As noted before, an electromagnetic wave has a frequency and a wavelength associated with it and travels at the speed of light, or \(c\). The relationship among these wave characteristics can be described by \({v}_{\text{W}}=\mathrm{f\lambda }\), where \({v}_{\text{W}}\) is the propagation speed of the wave, \(f\) is the frequency, and \(\lambda \) is the wavelength. Here \({v}_{\text{W}}=c\), so that for all electromagnetic waves,

\(c=\mathrm{f\lambda }.\)

Thus, for all electromagnetic waves, the greater the frequency, the smaller the wavelength.

This figure shows how the various types of electromagnetic waves are categorized according to their wavelengths and frequencies—that is, it shows the electromagnetic spectrum. Many of the characteristics of the various types of electromagnetic waves are related to their frequencies and wavelengths, as we shall see.

Electromagnetic Spectrum: Rules of Thumb

Three rules that apply to electromagnetic waves in general are as follows:

  • High-frequency electromagnetic waves are more energetic and are more able to penetrate than low-frequency waves.
  • High-frequency electromagnetic waves can carry more information per unit time than low-frequency waves.
  • The shorter the wavelength of any electromagnetic wave probing a material, the smaller the detail it is possible to resolve.

Note that there are exceptions to these rules of thumb.


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